by Laurence Ross
A fire breaks out behind my house. The crash happens at night, just as I end a phone call. A tree branch on an electrical wire, the transistor blows out, and yes, there is wind as well. Sudden darkness progresses to orange pixels sparking just above a neighbor’s roof. Then come flashlight beams and specks of candlelight seen through curtainless windows, our small tributes to flame heralding the mounting embers above. By the time the fire truck begins to amble down the street, a crowd has gathered on the sidewalk, standing as clear-conscienced as Christmas carolers, mouths absentmindedly agape, knowing they are not responsible for misery this night.
We are sitting on the porch, Lauren and I, considering the worth of our possessions and that perhaps we might like to have a cocktail. The red and blue lights of a police car pass over banisters and bicycles, through shrubbery and the latticework of plastic lawn chairs. While the fire truck begins to pump its water (I just learned this, that fire trucks carry around a supply of water within their hulls), the driver climbs down from the front seat, opens a panel in the side of the vehicle, and after a moment of rummaging, lights a cigarette.
High school homecoming games with bonfires, logs heaped above the heads of the crowd, the opposing team’s mascot (or perhaps a dummy of an actual human being dressed in the garb of the enemy) tossed on top of this playful funeral pyre. Beer bottles packed in sand, the brown necks angled toward the ocean, set to launch cheap fireworks lit by lighter-burnt thumbs. Catholics on the Easter vigil passing a flame from candle tip to candle tip, watching for the first child to burn himself with wax. I can remember a time during grade school when we, a class of ten-year-olds, were being punished for something. I do not remember the something, but I do remember the entire class was punished, our penance consecrated by sacrificial ritual. I remember the fiery spectacle of atonement. We scribbled our sins on slips of white paper that were then tossed into a bronze pot and ignited by the school principal. Forcibly astonished into repentance.
I can hear someone somewhere saying, This is all it takes to send us back into the stone age, and, seated on the porch, I resent the obvious observation. Yes, we can be quickly stripped of modern convenience by a strong wind and a stray tree branch. We know. My neighbor across the street, an older woman who carries her imposing figure with a kind-hearted purpose, approaches the porch and asks Lauren and me if we have candles. My neighbor, the fifth generation to live in the same house, owns boxes to spare. I reply that we do have candles and she says something about sleeping the night without air-conditioning as she turns back toward her own porch and the potted plants that hang there.
Hours later, on ABC News, a woman with oversized glasses and stringy hair says to a man with a camera that everyone here needs water and ice. Where is FEMA? Ike has wreaked havoc. The woman briefly lifts her glasses from the bridge of her nose as she shakes her head in disbelief.
I am, however, not actually certain that we have candles. I know there are some pumpkin-scented tea lights in a cabinet somewhere in the kitchen, left by the previous renters. I know there is a green candle sitting on top of the toilet but I am uncertain of the scent. To my knowledge, we do not have the types of candles that one sticks in a candelabra, the type of candles one places a protective palm in front of to shield the flickering flame from draft. We are not really prepared for disaster, even one as small as this. Even in a disaster that is ours, we do nothing but watch.
The woman with oversized glasses says everyone here needs water and ice. But her here is not my here. Her here is a full state away, at a distance. There.
I do not usually operate on this scale—writing about national tragedy, hurricanes, the media’s melee of microphones and the distressed. My trodden space is toy trains kept beneath colorful wrapping paper, a patina of soot on an armchair, fictional adults chopping cabbage in the kitchen with a large rusty blade. My trodden space is a small one, a circular one, and one that could barely contain the small plastic globe on the end of a key chain, much less the real one spinning beneath us. Not that there is not tragedy on this small scale as well, but that tragedy is of a different degree. All this to say I am widening my scope.
A neighbor plays with her cat on her porch. The cat seems oblivious, despite loud engines, bright lights, and slight rain. It reaches its paws up to the seat of a chair, digs in its claws, and stretches.
After the power is back on, I am sitting on the couch with the television glowing. There is a box of multi-grain crackers on the coffee table. A container of hummus I have retrieved from the refrigerator. I adjust my pillow and take in the updates. Not the news I can see here through my window, but the news out there, beyond. Cameramen are seeking access to severely damaged areas. They are angry they cannot obtain it. They tell me this with a microphone and studio lighting. Instead of live footage, I am shown a slideshow: a boy drags his rowboat through knee-deep water; a husband and wife sleep on the second floor of their flooded home; a man hoists the American flag over a gray sky.
The fire is extinguished, our power is restored, and we are not punished for our inaction. We could have thrown some things in the car and driven it a couple blocks away for safekeeping. But instead, we briefly contemplated a drink and all those things inside sat untouched.
I am not sure if this woman on the television is scared or not. I am informed that she is a victim and that she is poor. She is so poor that she is without water and I am supposed to make the connection that since water makes up most of our body mass, not having any of it is a grave situation. Perhaps I am also supposed to note the cruel irony that water has caused this disaster in the first place. But what I am doing is watching the lights of the camera crew bounce off this woman’s oversized glasses. What I am doing is thinking, This is not me. My disaster has been avoided. My air-conditioning is working again. And I am wondering what everyone else is wondering while looking at this woman with the oversized glasses because I can’t help but think that this woman was chosen by the cameraman, by ABC News, to be our spectacle, and was perhaps chosen because of those oversized glasses. These glasses make this spectacle a little more spectacular.
Though this meaning of the word is now obsolete, a spectacle, an eyeglass, was once called a spyglass. Spy. To peer into a space that is not one’s own.
I turn on the ceiling fan and turn out my light. I reset my alarm clock because it is blinking. I reset the alarm. It will go off soon.
Microcosm: woman with oversized glasses; macrocosm: hurricane. The distressed pupils enlarged behind her lenses. Ike’s hollow-pointed eye and its green and yellow iris on the radar. Those cameramen are more aware than we give them credit for. Those clever cameramen know how to choose. Those cameramen slipped in that sly wink of the meta-eye and thought we might not notice. And we really had to work at that one, we did. But we did notice—because we were watching.